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Cobb communicates through film

Mills College Weekly

From her interest in launching her own radio station to making
documentary films to becoming an associate professor, Portia Cobb
has many experiences and achievements including receiving a B.A. at
Mills College in 1987.

Cobb is currently working on two projects besides teaching at
the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Two years ago she traveled
to West Africa to record interviews with traditional musicians of
the Sub-Sahara in collaboration with a historian from Senegal.

She is now working with the material she collected to create a
documentary on how West Africa has influenced the blues.

She is also working on a documentary on the African-American
community that settled in Yonges Island, S.C., in the 1800s. Cobb’s
great-grandmother owned 24 acres of land in Yonges Island in 1891.
She is in the process of unraveling the mystery of her
great-grandmother’s land ownership and the community that she was
part of.

Cobb’s original idea however, was not about unraveling her
family’s history or trips to West Africa. At first she wanted to
own and run her own radio station, but the idea was derailed after
an internship showed her the realities of the radio industry.
Instead, while pursuing her degree in Communications at Mills, Cobb
discovered a love for film. After Mills she went to San Francisco
State where she earned a Masters in Film Studies.

Cobb came to Mills as a single mother with her five- year-old

“Mills was my daughter’s backyard,” she said. She found the
resumer community specific to Mills to be welcoming and supportive.
Cobb recalled classmates older than her who were pursuing higher
education and how inspiring they were.

Her experience at Mills showed her a positive alternative to a
college atmosphere.

“Mills made me challenge what I thought academia to be,” she
said. Cobb couldn’t help but notice the difference in professor to
student interactions after leaving Mills.

“One day at San Francisco State, a classmate didn’t come to
class and nobody knew where she was. We never found out what
happened to her. At Mills, a student would get a phone call when
they missed class.”

Mills connected Cobb to Moira Roth, who she considers to be a

Cobb recalled Roth’s innovative teaching style, “We set up an
avant garde caf� and chose characters and impersonated them
after research. We dedicated the show to modern artists. I was Hugo
Ball a quirky non-sensical poet. My costume was made of corrugated
cardboard around my arms, waist and legs. For the performance I had
to be hoisted onto the stage just like Hugo Ball, did in real

Beyond creative teaching activities, Cobb appreciated Roth’s
real life connections that she made for her students.

“I was grateful for the opportunity to publish a book with
Moira, in another class, of collected interviews with modern
artist,” she said, “Through her I made a lot of contacts with
artists I still use now.”

Another influential memory for Cobb was her job at the library.
She recalled a particularly energetic supervisor by the name of
Eva. “Eva trained me to work in reference in the library. I used to
really resent her because she always had so much energy but she
really cared even though she seemed stern. I learned a lot from her
even though she wasn’t a professor. She taught me research skills
that I still use in my documentary work.”

When Cobb graduated from Mills, she had her second daughter and
found her Mills degree to be highly functional in the real world.
“When I said I went to Mills, I found myself getting jobs. Mills
has a great reputation,” she said.